Kick-off to the Summer 2021 Olympics! Maria Gallo, Assistant Coach for the National Women’s Rugby Sevens

UBC KIN’s Maria Gallo is an Associate Professor of Teaching and the Director of the High-Performance Coaching & Technical Leadership program. She is highly regarded both in the academic and the National Women’s Rugby coaching world. Maria was recently appointed the Assistant Coach for the National Women’s Rugby 7s team to help train the squad for the 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. In fact, the team actually requested that Maria Gallo come onboard to coach them, as many had worked with her on the National Women’s 15s and highly respected her as one of the few female rugby coaches in Canada.

As a member of the Rugby Canada Hall of Fame 2018, she is very familiar with this level of competitive rugby. She played in 2002, 2006, and 2010 Rugby World Championships (RWC), and was captain of the Canadian team at the 2009 RWC Sevens. Since the conclusion of her playing career, she has served as an assistant coach with the National Women’s 15s team and the head coach of the UBC Women’s rugby team. Having served as a female player at this elite level of competition, she says, “it’s all about the trust in your coaches. The girls know I am here solely for their growth and development and to ensure they have a safe environment.”

Maria believes deeply in the team saying that in the World Series, the Canadian Women’s Rugby 7s team is always in the top 3. Since her appointment last December, she has been traveling from her home in Vancouver to Vancouver Island every Wednesday night since January – juggling her academic career, young family, and coaching responsibilities –  and will be joining the team later in May through to the Olympics. “It’s been a bit stressful,” says Maria. “But I feel good being there for the team. They know I’m there for them and not using this as a stepping stone.” She’s sacrificed a lot, but Maria is convinced “the team has a real chance at winning an Olympic medal, and I want help get them there!”

“So, are we going to the 2021 Summer Olympics? It sounds like we’re going! The team has been training every day since January as though they’re going! And the Games start July 23rd! So, we aim to travel to Japan in the first week of July to spend two-and-a-half weeks in practice in Morioka, and the competition takes place in Tokyo Stadium on July 29-30th, with the finals taking place on July 31st.”

The team placed second in back-to-back competitions in Dubai where they recently played against Japan, Kenya, USA, France, and Brazil. At the time of writing this article, a few members of the team were sadly diagnosed with COVID. Despite having been tested prior to leaving Dubai, and upon arrival in Canada, the team members contracted COVID. While the entire team is currently in quarantine, most are asymptomatic, and all athletes and staff are in good health and receiving the support they need. COVID has contributed an extra obstacle and another layer of anxiety. However, they are determined to overcome this unprecedented challenge and proceed to compete at the Summer Olympics.  “The team is taking care of their health and the coaching staff continues to plan for the best preparation for the Olympics. We will resume training as soon as we can. I’m calling it forced resilience,” comments Maria.

The Canadian team qualified for the Olympics along with teams from Australia, Brazil, China, Fiji, Great Britain, Japan, Kenya, New Zealand, USA. The Canadian women placed 3rd in the HSBC World Rugby 7s Series standings when the season shut down after five events last year. Maria believes “the Canadian women are a definite medal threat.” The team placed third in the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series standings when the season shut down after five events last year and finished runner-up at three events and third at a fourth. “However, the Olympic games will require a slightly different approach this year”, states Maria. “The team is made up of 12 athletes, playing over a 3-day tournament instead of a typical 2-day event, so we’ll have to use our substitutions wisely. Canadian rugby typically has a more aggressive style of play, but in the Olympics, we’ll need to play a faster, up-tempo game, so fitness is of the utmost importance.  Consequently, the team is looking at the best combinations of athletes possible.”

The coaching team is completely new this year for the women’s national senior team, with Mick Byrne (a specialist coach for Australia) coming on board as the head coach, along with the two new assistant coaches, Sandro Fiorino and Maria Gallo. Sandro Fiorino (head coach of the Canadian women’s 15s team has temporarily moved from Ontario to Langford, BC, and will also aid with the data analytics. Maria Gallo has been excited to work with Mick on the team’s technical and tactical development,  stating, “We’ve been trying to get the team to play a more creative style of rugby and to build their confidence. We haven’t developed our kicking game as much as we should have here in Canada. I’m trying to get them more confident about kicking the ball; to play within a structure, but also to have the confidence to use their strengths when the opportunities arise.” Maria adds, “I focus on doing everything we can do today to set ourselves up for success tomorrow. COVID has taught us all to be more adaptable. Of course, there’s some anxiety with the unknowns of COVID-19. But changing your mindset slightly to think it will have a more positive outcome is what’s necessary! That’s how I’m handling it. If we do go off to Tokyo it will be fantastic, but of course, safety and health is our number one concern. There will definitely be disappointment if they are put off to France in 2024.”

We wish the Women’s Rugby 7s team members a speedy recovery and all success in achieving their goals at the Olympics.